Samuel Amadon is the author of Like a Sea, University of Iowa Press. He is a poetry editor for Gulf Coast.
When we think of Ronald Johnson, we probably think of his erasure Radi os or of his long poem ARK—which is in desperate need of a reissue—but he was also the author of several excellent cookbooks: The Aficionado’s Southwestern Cooking—the most comprehensive cookbook I have on the region—Company Fare and its companion Simple Fare—the latter I gave away, but not before it taught me a valuable lesson about scrambled eggs: double-boiler and lots of butter—and The American Table—my favorite.
The American Table was originally published in 1984 and was Johnson’s second cookbook. He subtitled it: more than 400 recipes that make accessible for the first time the full richness of American regional cooking. We can see this regional variety just in the names of recipes. For instance in the section called Meals in a Bowl—Johnson divides between these and lighter soups—we find “Beverly Hills Rangoon Racquet Club Championship Chili” alongside “Hyannis Fish Chowder” and “Kentucky Black Bean Soup.” These recipes feel gathered out of his experience—moving around the country from Kansas to New York to California—rather than arranged to fit a particular niche. Reading through them, I get a sense of Johnson as a curious and interested person, someone I would like to have eaten a meal with.
He includes a series of commentaries after each recipe, and I love the way they make it clear he has selected meals he actually eats, often ones that he has eaten for years. In the commentary under “Senate Bean Soup” in the same section, he writes, “During the depression in Kansas, my mother used to make a similar dish she called ‘stewed butterbeans,’ which she would ladle over a slice of whole-wheat bread as a succulent budget stretcher. I still like it that way, so I usually double this recipe, and freeze batches of it to have as a simple dinner with a glass of beer and a salad.”
It’s worth noting that The American Table is pretty poet-friendly in terms of the cost of making these meals. There is nothing too expensive or exotic, and generally the recipes don’t call for that many ingredients. Johnson also makes suggestions on how to use excess food leftover from cooking. After his “My Mashed Potatoes,” he writes: “Vitamins aside, this makes quite the most possible of an already good thing. It probably is a sin to waste anything as good as these peelings. In fact, even when you prepare other potato dishes remember they can be cooked as they come from the peeler in large strips to make an excellent appetizer. They can also be prepared from baking peel (about five minutes), or boiled peel (about 20 minutes).”
In an era when many cookbooks seem more interested in showing you hyper-glossy pictures of dishes than in helping you make them, the commentaries and instructions of The American Table feel kinder, and more interested in you enjoying your food. And I have! The American Table has taught me, finally, how to cook collard greens, and “Fried Okra, Kentucky Style.” The “Louisiana Ratatouille”—more okra—is the first ratatouille I’ve made that hasn’t come out a soupy mess, and the “Texas Jalapeno Cheese Cornbread” would be a regular part of my life, if eating cheese and jalapeno filled cornbread was a reasonable thing to do everyday. And while there are plenty of recipes I probably won’t try—“Huntsville Deviled Kidneys” and “Liver Maryland”—there are more that I hope I will—“Fairmont Hotel Crab Mustard Ring,” “My Mother’s Sour Cream Peaked Cauliflower,” and the “Georgia Summer Squash Souffle.”
The American Table was most recently reissued by Silver Spring Books, but is now out of print. Still I found a copy for a few dollars on Half.com, and I think most of Ronald Johnson’s cookbooks are available for about that much. I recommend them.
Sam, I'm just delighted to see this -- it feels like an aspect of this electic, amazing and self-transforming poet that's barely been mentioned. I've never seen these books, and now you make me want them. His interest in bringing ingredients almost whole into his poems (Wordsworth, Blake and Samuel Palmer in the first two books, Milton later on) feels akin to making harmonious dishes,
"originality" achieved by unexpected decisions. (You become yourself by means of the ways you put things together?) Anyway, would you consider sending some of that jalapeno corn bread to NYC?
Appreciated seeing this. RJ's "Southwest Cooking, New and Old" is another classic (revising "Aficionado's"), as is "Simple Fare"'s companion, "Company Fare." (Which includes a roasted chicken with red wine vinegar and juniper berries recipe that's incredible.) The original title for "Simple Fare" was "When the Cupboard Is Bare," an indication of the humble reality of many a poet's life. He was a master of scratching a meal together from whatever remainders were sitting on the shelves (as I was lucky to experience a time or two). (Don't pass up trying the incredible "Thing" from "American Table." Shockingly delicious, even with the cottage cheese!)
Flood Editions is re-issuing ARK in the coming year, in a corrected edition (correcting typesetter's errors and some proofreading problems). It will be a beautiful book.